They went to Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. having a dream. The event, for them, however, turned out to be a nightmare.
Despite having arrived at the March on Washington 2013 event site 60 to 90 minutes before the Aug. 28 event was scheduled to begin, hundreds of people were denied entry after standing in lines in heat and humidity as others enjoyed the program. They were turned away after a bottle-neck at the only security entry led to such long delay.
Participants complained that the entry point backed up because there were only six metal detectors for many thousands of people to go through. Those who arrived early had fewer problems, but those who arrived closer to the start time often found themselves struggling to get inside the area designated for the festivities.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has asked the Secret Service to explain the security measures, according to media accounts. Norton and other officials want to know why there were so few metal detectors placed at the site, when everybody who went inside had to be checked. The presence of President Obama, former presidents Clinton and Carter and several of King’s relatives meant that stepped-up security measures had to be taken.
Some people said they stood in the same spot for as long as an hour without moving a step. The long wait was complicated by the fact that there were barriers between the lines and no mechanism set up to keep people from cutting the lines. The result was a crowd gathered outside the entry point as temperatures rose and tempers flared.
Mary Wood, 75, of Northwest Washington, said she stood in line for 90 minutes. She said event organizers at the march 50 years ago, which she attended, did a better job of moving people inside.
"There's a lot more security here and so much is gated off," Wood said. There were more people at the March 50 years ago and today, everything’s blocked off.”
The Aug. 28 commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington took place on the National Mall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. The event was the second to celebrate the 1963 march. On Aug. 24, more than 100,000 gathered in the same spot for a pre-march rally and a march from the Lincoln Memorial down
Independence Avenue past the Martin Luther King Memorial to the Washington Monument, where the march culminated. The Aug. 24 event was led by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network while the Aug. 28 event was organized by a coalition led by the King Center in Atlanta.
National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterest told Fox 5 News on Aug. 29 that the Park Service was among several partners who assisted the King Center in presenting the event. Others included the District of Columbia and several agencies.
Litterest said the application for the permit was filed by the King Center. The application estimated the crowd at “15,000 to 20,000,” he said. While law enforcement authorities have given no official account, participants believe there were at least 100,000 present at the Aug. 28 event.
“It was a cooperative effort,” Litterest said of the program. “The Park Service was not the lead on the security aspect with the presidential involvement. That falls with the Secret Service, but we certainly worked with them throughout the day to address some of those concerns and try to alleviate some of those jams. An event in which three U.S. presidents are attending, not to mention the family of Dr. King, security was going to be as tight for this event probably of any event that’s been done in the Capitol since the inauguration.”
Entry into the event site was the picture of disorganization. At a checkpoint near the World War II Memorial, there were six metal detectors set up to check many hundreds of participants for weapons. Though two more metal detectors were brought in, the bottleneck was substantial. Another problem occurred because there were no barriers for lines. There were few volunteers stationed to keep order prior to the actual entry point.
Many people had children and many of the eldest complained about the lack of consideration for the very young and older participants. That was especially galling because many of them in attendance at the Aug. 28 event had been in attendance at the 1963 march or recorded it.
Ted E. Holmes, 78, participated in the March on Washington in 1963. Holmes waited in line so long that he had to sit down.
“My leg was bothering me. I couldn’t walk no more. I broke my ankle about four or five months ago,” Holmes told the AFRO as he sat at a table outside the gates of entry.
Despite the problems, he was grateful for the occasion.
“Martin Luther King has done a lot for me,” Holmes said. “He’s made me a man.
He made me think better, live better. There are a lot of things I’ve learned from him, a lot.”
Twana Holmes, 53, a program coordinator for the D.C. Department of Health, eventually gave up.
“I stood in line for two hours without moving at all,” she said.
Like Holmes, she said she would recognize King at home.
“When I was in junior high school, I did a report on Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she said. “It impressed me how much he did at such a young age. We still have a long way to go to reach his dream, especially when I think of the [Trayvon] Martin family.
I would love to see racial equality.”
As the people waiting to get in line to get in were increasingly agitated at around 11:30 a.m., six police officers moved in, positioning themselves near the metal detectors in an attempt to block people from cutting into the front of the line. About noon, not long after the police arrived, someone waiting in the line near the WW II Memorial fainted. An AFRO reporter who was standing farther back in the line was unable to determine whether it was man, woman, or child who lost consciousness.
The police officers blocked the view of people in line. A few moments earlier, two men got into a bickering match that people in line feared would turn violent. The woman who was guarding the front notified the police who then responded. When officers arrived they faced a barrage of questions from people in line.
In a phone interview on Aug. 29, Litterest told FOX 5 News: “For the event of the whole, the Park Service partnered with many federal agencies; District of Colombia, public safety and public service entities to put on the event. It was a cooperative effort. Park Service was not the lead on the security aspect with the presidential involvement. That falls with the Secret Service, but we certainly worked with them throughout the day to address some of those concerns and try to alleviate some of those jams. An event in which three U.S. Presidents are attending, not to mention the family of Dr. King, security was going to be as tight for this event probably as any event that’s been done in the Capitol since the inauguration.
He said the event application estimated attendance at “15,000-20,000 people total.” He added, “I don’t have final numbers, but from where I could see at the Lincoln Memorial, we certainly exceeded that. Probably something for the Secret Service to speak on specifically, but I do not know the numbers they were planning on. But if those were the numbers they were planning on, there were probably more people there than we expected. “
For future references, Litterest said: “It’s planning in advance and getting a good count of the people who were coming. Certainly I’m not one to question or second-guess what they do. The protection of one president, never mind three, the security was of the upmost importance. Obviously the more access points you have, the greater the security risks.”
For future events. he said, “I would suggest” that participants “leave a little earlier, rather than showing up right when the event starts and being disappointed of large crowds trying to get in.”